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Wednesday 28 Dec 2022
Review of the year | Northern Ireland senior men’s team

The Northern Ireland senior men’s team enjoyed a positive start to the year, however it was largely disappointing from there after they struggled in the UEFA Nations League in early summer and early autumn.

Northern Ireland began their 2022 calendar of fixtures with a 3-1 away win against Luxembourg back in March.

Late goals from Steven Davis and Gavin Whyte alongside a fine first half strike from Josh Magennis helped Ian Baraclough’s side ease to victory in the international friendly at the Stade de Luxembourg.

Four days later they lost 1-0 against Hungary in another friendly, this time at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland produced the better chances across the 90 minutes and were only undone when Hungary punished a mistake.

Hungary’s goal was scored on 56 minutes. Niall McGinn’s pass back to Bailey Peacock-Farrell fell short and the alert Roland Sallai nipped in to round the keeper and stroke the ball home.

Despite the result, it was an encouraging performance as the team prepared for their third UEFA Nations League campaign.

Northern Ireland, who were top seeds in League C Group 2, faced four UNL fixtures in June with a slightly depleted squad.

And their first match in the group set the tone for what would be a disappointing campaign. They lost 1-0 at home to second seeds Greece.

Gus Poyet’s team grabbed all three points in Belfast in early June thanks to a goal from captain Tasos Bakasetas.

Greece largely bossed the game for 60 minutes before the introduction of experienced campaigners Kyle Lafferty and Niall McGinn gave Northern Ireland fresh impetus.

However, despite producing some flowing football, they could not break down a resolute Greek defence in the final half-hour.

Game two saw them take on Cyprus in Larnaca where they picked up a point in a 0-0 draw.

Northern Ireland had plenty of possession at the AEK Arena but they lacked a cutting edge on a balmy night.

A few days later they were defeated 3-2 by Kosovo in an entertaining game in Pristina.

Kosovo dominated the match for long spells, however Baraclough’s team kept battling away and could arguably have nicked a point in the closing stages.

An 83rd minute goal from Daniel Ballard, when Northern Ireland were 3-1 down, sparked a frantic finale, however the boys in green and white could not pull level at the Stadiumi Fadil Vokrri in the Kosovan capital.

Kosovo’s goals were scored by Vedat Muriqi (two, including a penalty) and Zymer Bytyqi, while Shayne Lavery got on the scoresheet as well as Ballard.

From there it was back to Belfast for the final instalment of the gruelling June quadruple header.

And Northern Ireland had to come from behind to draw 2-2 with Cyprus.

Goals from Paddy McNair and Jonny Evans in the final 20 minutes earned them a point. Andronikos Kakouilli had earlier grabbed a brace for the Cypriots.

The fightback was sparked by a series of substitutions which brought fresh energy to the team. Subs Jordan Thompson and Niall McGinn were particularly influential.

After not winning a game in the two previous editions of the Nations League, the team eventually laid that hoodoo to rest when they defeated Kosovo in game five in C2 in late September.

A superb header from Josh Magennis with 92 minutes on the clock helped to secure a 2-1 victory, Northern Ireland’s first ever win in the UEFA Nations League.

Substitute Gavin Whyte grabbed an equaliser before providing a wonderful assist for the winner.

Kosovo bossed the first half of the League C Group 2 clash at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park and took the lead just before the hour mark thanks to a superb hit from Vedat Muriqi.

But Northern Ireland were much better after the break and worked their socks off to register a first victory in the Nations League after a run of 14 matches without a win in the competition.

The final game of the campaign saw the boys in green and white lose 3-1 to Greece in Athens three days later. It turned out to be Baraclough’s final match in charge of the team.

Jonny Evans won his 100th cap at the Georgios Kamaras stadium in the Greek capital, however the home side and table toppers spoilt the experienced Northern Ireland defender’s party.

Dimitris Pelkas opened the scoring early in the first half before Shayne Lavery quickly levelled proceedings by tucking home a pinpoint Steven Davis cross.

After the break Greece upped the tempo and scored twice to deservedly take all three points. Giorgos Masouras and Petras Mantalos got the goals.

The defeat meant Northern Ireland finished third in the four-team group on goal difference after the Kosovans hammered Cyprus 5-1 at home to claim second place overall.

Due to the FIFA World Cup being staged in November and December this year, there were no international matches for the senior men’s team in the final three months of the year.

Ian Baraclough left the role of senior men’s team international manager in October.

One of his final acts was taking a trip to Frankfurt to attend the draw for the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifiers - Germany will be hosting the tournament - in which Northern Ireland were drawn to face Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino in Group H between March and November in 2023.

At the start of this month, following Baraclough’s departure, Michael O’Neill was appointed as manager of Northern Ireland for a second spell.

O’Neill (53) signed a five-and-a-half-year contract with the Irish Football Association and will work closely with the Irish FA’s Technical Director, Aaron Hughes.

Michael said: “I am delighted to be the Northern Ireland senior men’s team manager. I am excited to see what can be achieved with this group of players and can’t wait to be in front of the Green and White Army at the National Stadium once again.”

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s U21s had a tough year.

In March they lost 2-1 away to Slovakia in a U21 Euro 2023 Group C qualifier - Carl Johnston got Northern Ireland’s goal - before being overrun by a slick France U21s team in an international friendly in Calais. John Schofield’s side were still very much in the contest until the final half hour but then the hosts put the burners on at the Stade de l'Épopée and ran out 5-0 winners.

In early June they lost 6-0 to Spain in a Euro qualifier at Larne’s Inver Park and days later they conceded a late goal to conclude their Euro 2023 qualifying campaign with a 1-1 draw away to Lithuania in Alytus. Dale Taylor grabbed Northern Ireland’s goal in that qualifier.

The draw meant Northern Ireland finished third in Group C on seven points, however that was well adrift of table toppers Spain (24 points) and second-placed Slovakia (15 points).

In September the U21s played two friendlies against Scotland’s U21s. In the first game, staged at Belfast’s Blanchflower Stadium, they lost 3-1.

Scotland scored twice towards the end of the first half and just before the hour mark to put themselves firmly in the driving seat before Northern Ireland grabbed a consolation through Chris McKee (pictured below).

In the second encounter, at St Mirren’s SMiSA Stadium, they registered a 1-1 draw. Dale Taylor was on target for Schofield’s side.